Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, tells the story of several critical months in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, leading up to the voting rights marches from Montgomery to Selma that took place March 7-25, 1965.
This is a powerhouse of a film, absolutely riveting. The film wisely eschews the birth-to-death approach of a biopic, instead focusing just on one period of time during the life on its subject. (Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln recently used this approach, to similarly strong effect.)
The film is anchored by the staggeringly great performance of David Oyelowo as Dr. King. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Oyelowo ever since his great work, as a younger man, on the early seasons of Spooks (called M.I.5 here in the U.S.). He’s had great supporting roles in a number of films in recent years, including Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s thrilling to see him step into the big leagues with this performance. Mr. Oyelowo is mesmerizing in the role. He brings a level of honest humanity to this portrayal of Dr. King, a critical element in allowing the performance and the film to breathe, and to not feel like simply a worshipful paean to a legend. At the same time, Mr. Oyelowo is able to capture every ounce of Dr. King’s charisma and his persuasive power. Mr. Oyelowo delivers several speeches in the film, and they are all absolutely magnificent — most particularly the one that closes the film.
The film wastes no time, as it opens, in setting the stage for the story and conveying to the audience all that was at stake. As we see Dr. King accept the Nobel Peace Prize, we also see an African American woman, Annie Lee Cooper, attempt to register to vote in Selma, Alabama, only to be denied by the white registrar of voters; and in Birmingham, Alabama, we see four children killed in the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church. This film had its hooks in me right from those opening scenes, and it never let go right up through the end.
Selma is a period piece, but it feels rivetingly of the now. This is not a dull, dry presentation of historical facts; the film is alive with a passion and an anger that is devastatingly powerful. I have singled out Mr. Oyelowo for praise, deservedly so, but the entire ensemble is very strong, and the film is very well-crafted by director Ava DuVernay. We get to know and care about a number of different characters, and we see the story unfold through their eyes as well as through those of Dr. King.
If the film has a weakness, it is in the few times when it appears that historical fact has been tweaked by the film’s narrative. The example that has been written about the most is the film’s depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the film, though Johnson expresses support for Dr. King and his ideas, he consistently opposes Dr. King’s efforts to get black citizens the right to vote without obstacles, telling Dr. King that he (LBJ) has more important political projects that take priority. Many historians have objected to this depiction, arguing that LBJ was a leader, not a reluctant follower, in the Civil Rights movement. (Click here for more on that.) I also found myself disappointed that the film did not make any reference to the Jewish support for Dr. King. Since I was a kid, I have heard the stories and seen the famous photos of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walking alongside Dr. King at Selma. I didn’t expect the film to take the time to mention Heschel by name, but I was surprised that, moment after moment, while the camera gave us repeated close-ups of other religious figures walking alongside Dr. King at Selma, this famous Jewish figure was absent. (You could only occasionally see a kippah-wearing figure in a few long-shots, and only if you were really looking for one, as I was.) After seeing the film and wondering if I was being small-minded in my disappointment at the absence of even a glimpse of Jewish support for Dr. King, I found several other articles raising the issue, from this piece, to this one specifically asking where was Heschel, to these comments by Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, who was disappointed by her father’s omission from the film.
Now look, I get it that no film can be everything to everybody. When dramatizing events as important as these, everyone has a point of view and everything has their vision of what they want to see included in what would be, for them, the most accurate version of these events. No film can satisfy everyone. I can certainly understand if Ava DuVernay and her collaborators wanted to the film’s focus to be on Dr. King and other black leaders of the Civil Rights movement, rather than a white man like LBJ. And I certainly can understand that it was not high on Ms. DuVernay’s priority list to chronicle the Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. But it seems to me that the film’s strong focus on Dr. King could have been easily accomplished without twisting the reality of JBJ’s role. (The filmmakers argue that they have been accurate in their depiction of President Johnson, but enough historians disagree for me to feel otherwise.) And as for Rabbi Heschel, all I was looking for was just one shot of him. When the camera lingers repeatedly on the other religious leaders there at Selma with Dr. King, the exclusion of this famous Jewish figure — one so clearly seen just one person to the right of Dr. King in photographs from the march — is extremely puzzling to me, and disappointing.
As my wife and I walked out of Selma, she said to me that she felt the film was so important that it should be shown in schools. I wish I could wholeheartedly agree, but the film’s small alterations to historical fact trouble me. It seems like a surprising mis-step for a film that is otherwise so amazing.
Because other than those quibbles I have just mentioned, I think my wife’s assessment of the film is entirely on the money. This is an extraordinarily powerful film, and more than that, it is an extraordinarily important one. Anyone with an internet connection is no stranger to the various racial issues that have emerged here in the U.S. just in the past several months. Much progress has been made since 1965, but we have quite a ways yet to go. These are important issues for us to be discussing and debating and considering, and a historical film like Selma can be a powerful tool in bringing to light, not just important historical events, but the issues facing us right here and now.
And while all of that is, I think, praise that the film well-deserves, I want to emphasize the point I made at the start of this review. Selma is indeed an important film, but don’t let that convince you that it is not also a relentlessly engaging and entertaining one. This is a remarkable story brought to life by an incredible, electric array of actors. The film has a potent, sharp script (consider that, in a nutty twist, the filmmakers did not actually have the rights to many of Dr. King’s speeches, and so all of his speeches in the film were written from scratch) and it is extraordinarily well-directed by Ms. DuVernay. The film is gorgeous and haunting and heartbreaking and uplifting.
This is gripping cinema. This is important cinema. I’m glad to have seen it.